Would you get on that bus?

cartoon of bus driver in busProfessional dog trainers often seem like a touchy bunch. There’s little we don’t have an opinion on, and a strong one at that. When someone seeks advice on the best way to market themselves as a ‘dog trainer’ boasting of little experience other than growing up with a dog or training their own family pets, it might be best to either step away or put on your flack jacket. But seriously, who can blame us?

Imagine announcing to a group of professional truck or tour bus drivers that you were going to begin selling your services as a driver. You had after all been driving since you were 15 and had ridden in plenty of trucks and buses over the years. There is even the chance that you would be a great driver. But it’s a moot point, in the U.S. anyway, because you would not be allowed to drive without the proper license. No company is going to risk hiring someone without a license and few individuals have a truck or bus sitting around needing a driver. This is not the case for dog trainers. Anyone, and sometimes it seems like everyone, can claim to be a dog trainer, or dog psychologist, or behaviorist, if they are bold enough to stick it on a business card.

You might argue that it’s totally different, an unskilled driver could get someone killed. But it is not that different. When a pet owner contacts a dog trainer and is unsuccessful having their dog’s behavior accurately explained, and given the skills to change unwanted behaviors, dogs die. There are people who will go for a second or third opinion, early attempts at training not getting the desired results or having a trainer decline taking them on as a client (often wisely). Many others will give up or quickly tire of throwing money at the problem.

Certifications and licenses are not a guarantee that a dog trainer is a good one. There’s always going to be a surgeon who graduates at the head of their class, and the ones who don’t. There are dog trainers who hold no certification and are good at what they do. But when it’s time to board that bus, who do you want to see behind the wheel, someone who has proven themselves to have at the very least the minimum level of competency and skill to qualify for a license, or someone who just always enjoyed taking road trips?


23 comments so far

  1. dogdaz on

    Absolutely agree – it is sad that anyone can really call themselves anything and someone will buy it. I train my dogs, but I would never say I am a trainer. It is hard when you don’t have governing authorities in place to oversee professional standards that can be enforced. Every state gets to make their own decisions. At this point however in the animal battle, I would like to see states worry about stopping dog fighting, puppy mills, and the killing of overwhelming amounts of abandon animals; anyone that can afford a trainer should know enough to check references. Who do you think should have burden, the buyer or the seller?

    • fearfuldogs on

      My experience in the rural area I live in is that not everyone who hires a trainer can necessarily ‘afford’ one, but they make the sacrifice.

      The burden of what? Doing their due diligence or being safe and skilled enough to do what you are selling? I’d like to think both.

      There’s lots that needs to be done to make the world a better place for animals. No reason we each can’t work toward seeing the changes occur that we are most passionate about. You’ve picked your battles, I hope you kick some butt! 😉

  2. 2 Punk Dogs on

    I don’t think that some people realize that what worked for their one or more household pets can’t be applied to every dog. Professional dog trainers have a lot more experience with many different types of dogs, and should know many different techniques for dealing with a wide variety of behaviors. I’m sure you have an idea of the bad advice we’ve heard from other dog owners regarding Maggie & Duke’s fearful behaviors! I don’t want to repeat any of it.

  3. Lynn on

    I’m not so sure “professional standards” mean all that much, either. The thing I like most about this site is your emphasis on always trying to tune in to what makes the dog most comfortable as you try to help him learn. When I’ve stopped making progress with my shy Tulip, I’ll look for a positive-reinforcement trainer that Tulip isn’t afraid of. She needs empathy as much as anything else. Like 2 Punk Dogs, I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about training fearful pooches.

  4. Lizzie on

    Once again I think that it very much depends on the ‘issues’ a dog has.

    I can only refer to Gracie of course, never having had any other dog who needed the help of a trainer for behavioural problems.

    I paid serious money to two so called highly qualified trianers for consultations about Gracie. Neither of them were able to handle her or, at the time, be in the same room as her. I was given a lot a of paperwork to read by one of them, but nothing I read was as helpful, and more importantly relevant, as the info, which I subsequently found on fearfuldogs.com.
    Neither had encountered a dog as fearful as Gracie before. Which made me wonder about their expertise. The most helpful one did say that she would most likely never be a ‘normal’ dog, and the best that I could do would be to manange her environment.

    That was nearly four years ago, and she still remains a WIP!

    The only thing that has worked for Gracie is routine, time, patience, kindness, commitment and sharing and gaining knowledge from like minded people, such as on Debbie’s blog. Thank you all 🙂

  5. Debbie, I agree that this is a problem, but the question is whose problem is it ? In the business world I learned that there are problems of fact and problems of perception.In this situation there are both kinds of problems. In either case they are the profession’s problems and the professionals have to solve them.

    The problem of fact is that certification, in at least one certifying organization, is a written test. All that says is that you can read. There is no reason for me to have an expectation of better results from a certified trainer.

    The problem of perception is that there is no marketing program to demonstrate the value of a professional trainer. In the age of YouTube, that is inexcusable. I can go online and see 10 minute videos of people who have no training or skills showing off how they train. Or I can see professionals talking about training philosophy. Real people don’t buy training philosophy.

    It seems to me that the professionals would prefer to blame Cesar Milan, the untrained pseudo trainer, or anyone but themselves.

    BTW, I am not a trainer and tell people explicitly that I am not when offering advice.


    • fearfuldogs on

      I agree Jim that the professionals need to do a much better job of marketing their services. That’s the way the game is played.

      Not to be defensive, but I’ve taken a written test and it does more than prove you can read IMO. It has its limits, which is why I continue to work on certifications that include demonstrations of mechanical skills as well. I do all this for myself, the dogs and for other ‘professionals’ who should be curious as to what educational background I have. Few owners know what to look for or even ask.

      But it’s a start for creating a foundation of basic standards in the industry. At the very least trainers should agree to ‘do no harm’ and to do that they need to understand how harm can occur.

  6. Debbie, for you a written test would do a lot. It would help you know where you might be mis-using a term for example. But you study dogs and speak dog.

    You used the bus driver as your example, so let me take that idea a little further. The pilot license has an extensive written exam. Would you ride with a pilot who got a perfect score on the written exam, but failed the flying test. A good trainer will be a better trainer for taking and passing the exam. But the CPDT or APDP or other alphabet soup can give the impression that a person understands dog, when it doesn’t.

    In my opinion ( I would say “humble”, but by now you know I don’t have that kind of opinions) the ability to understand when a dog is stressed, when she “gets it”, etc. is the greatest influence on the success of training..

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am not in disagreement with you Jim regarding how skills are achieved or perceived. I know some great trainers who have no certification at all and I strive to be able to work with dogs as well as they do. And of course it goes the other way too. Folks with letters but not enough skill.

      I think we have to start somewhere to create an industry of professionals whose work is respected and represents a commitment to the study, practice and understanding of animal behavior. I know there are some who may choose not to associate with a certifying body for political and even economic reasons. But taking the time to read all that is required to pass an exam, compiling case studies or having one’s skills assessed at putting behaviors on a dog shows respect for the sophistication and requirements of the profession.

      This is of course just my opinion on the subject, and heaven knows there are plenty others out there.

  7. You are so right about creating an “industry of professionals”, and testing is a good start. And if I were to decide to move into training, I would take one of those tests, with hands on demonstration of skills.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and thought provoking blog.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m getting myself psyched up for another level of clicker competency. My cocker spaniel is going to love it.

  8. heather on

    This is a bit tough for me. The trainer we’ve bonded to doesn’t have any certifications; but, has worked for 30 years. A large chunk of which was in a shelter with every variety imaginable. He can read a dog as well as the dog/human combination in about the amount of time the pair can walk across the room. He does watch, read, research and work his own dogs across those years. In the time I’ve known him, I’ve seen his methods change and grow out of the darker times. I have also seen a “titled” trainer who wasn’t very good at managing her own dogs: I couldn’t imagine taking a class from her.

    I did not know there was a practical portion to the written test-thanks for the education.

    And I, as a real person, like to know training philosophy. Admittedly, i obsess on all topics canine; however, I like to know how my trainer is thinking. “Cuz if the trainer isn’t thinking right, I don’t need to be in that class.

    All that said, I have assisted our trainer for a couple years now. I still couldn’t imagine calling myself a trainer as there is just always so much knowledge to gain or so many different techniques to learn.


    • fearfuldogs on

      There are fantastic trainers without any certification for sure. The problem we are facing now is that many people are putting on ‘dog trainer’ hats thinking that their ability to teach a few dogs to sit or come when called makes them ‘trainers’.

      The biggest problem by far is that when faced with a behavior challenge few have the skills to implement a successful behavior modification plan and instead rely on the use of punishment to stop unwanted behaviors. The scariest are the folks who watch a few seasons of The DW, and think they understand dogs and what motivates them.

      The danger of mishandling dogs should not be underplayed. Doing anything that could lead to a dog biting in self-defense (which is usually what happens) gives that dog a ‘bite history’. Bite histories, regardless of the causes, make dogs very difficult to rehome.

      All in all I’d say that ‘thinking’ is good. Critical thinking is fantastic. Again, just my opinion.

      • Heather on

        I agree that mishandling is a huge danger for the dog. Not that I want to see a human hurt either, but it can end up costing the dog its life, when it probably was forced to defend after all other signals were mis-interpreted or ignored. I won’t even get started on The DW.

        In our area, we have noticed that way too many people seem to think they can become trainers. Seems like people who find themselves unemployed figure they can “just train some dogs” until the economy picks up. It’s scary and unfortunate. Re-training can pose huge challenges for both human and dog when they do find a qualified trainer.

        I also have to add I don’t understand people who send their dog off with a trainer to be trained and returned to them. When I think of all the bonding my dog and I have done at school… Between that and not knowing what someone was doing with my pup. No way.

        “First do no harm” sure does seem like it should be a foundation principle.

      • Debbie on

        For some dogs board and train jump starts the process. Some people love their dogs a lot but are not successful at changing behavior. Both you and are into making that happen & enjoy it. Not everyone is especially if the behavior is also frustrating or making them angry. They just want it to stop.

        I boarded a dog who barked as his food was being prepared. He went home a dog who no longer displayed that behavior. It wasn’t difficult but it did require timing, repetition and a very high rate of reinforcement. His owners could have learned to do it, but it was less frustrating & easier for the dog to learn when the training was more precise. Once the dog knew the behavior it was easy for me to explain to the owners how to keep it. They had been trying with no success & had been putting the dog in the garage while they prepared his food because they didn’t what else to do.

        A similar thing happens here with recalls when dogs stay with me. A few days of clear communication & reinforcement and the dogs ‘get it’. Then when they go home it’s as though their owners have a different accent than I do but the dogs still understand them.

        Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  9. Shearaha on

    Another piecec of this puzzel is beginning trainers, or people like myself who’ve apprenticed under a certified trainer and wish to gain certification. Part of the CPDT requirements is teaching time, lead teaching time. 200 hours to be exact. The trainer I’m apprenticed under does mostly 1 on 1 in home training, running maybe 1 puppy class a month. Were she to turn those puppy classes over to me that’s 4 hours of teaching time a month. At that rate it would take me 4 years to gain just the hours I need.

    So what I’ve decided to do is offer my services to friends and family free of charge so that I can gain some of those hours of teaching time. I can also get 70 hours of that time working with shelter dogs. If people don’t give beginners, or those wishing to break into the field a chance then how are people supposed to gain certification. Will it become a field that requires college courses (not a terrible idea but like many other carriers would limit those who could afford to pay)?

    I’m learning through an apprenticeship. I took my time and sorted through a number of trainers before I found one that I could learn from and work with. I attend seminar after seminar with both behaviorists and trainers. I take every (at least all that I can afford) oppurtunity to expand on my knowledge and skills.

    Through my apprenticeship I have the oppurtunity to work with and arround dogs with a variety of behavior issues. From fearful/shutdown to fear aggressive to OCD and SA, without being the lead. I’m also lucky to have the amazing resource of a veterinarian, working through her behavior residencey, and a behaviorial vet tech just a call away since my own dog is a patient at their clinic.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It sounds like you have a good plan and gaining lots of great skills and experience.

      I’d guess that most trainers I know are college graduates. They may not have majored in anything animal related and probably wish they did. There is already a disparity in cost among trainers. Where I live there’s a gender difference, the male trainers asking for, and getting I assume, more for their services. Location also affects what trainers charge and what owners are prepared to pay.

      I suppose that what is most important is that owners are getting the information and skills they need to keep their dogs, and the dogs are healthy and happy, and trainers can keep paying the rent and feeding their own dogs. And you understand the amount of time and energy that goes into being able to do all of those things well.

      • Shearaha on

        I’m also an RVT. I spent enough time and money on classes that I’ll be paying off for the next 20 years. My mentor is also a college graduate and used to be a special ed teacher. Her patience amazes me.

        In our area we have an over abundance of shock, prong, choke chain and “dominance” trainers. Most of them men, it can be difficult to convince someone that not punishing the dog will help it learn faster.

  10. fearfuldogs on

    Ahhhh..amazing patience. Something we should all strive for. It is not unfortunately part of the exam 😉

  11. rangerskat on

    This is completely off topic but I wanted to share and know the people here will understand. Finna just gave me her first genuine happy smile. She walked over, sat in front of me, looked me in the face and smiled. It’s been a hard five months and we’re nowhere near done but that just made it all worth it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Happy dogs are always on topic! I always say ‘work for the wag’ but the smile is good too!

      • Heather on

        Yaaaaay for you and Finna. Every wonder if they are thinking that “it’s been a hard five months…but this moment is worth it?”

  12. Frances on

    We have been having exactly this discussion on another forum, with a debate around certification of knowledge, experience and specialisation I think part of the problem is that most people do not understand the difference between a trainer and a behaviourist, or appreciate the very different methods that trainers can use. There are so many euphemisms – a choke chain or prong collar is a “training” collar, an e-collar does not deliver an electric shock but a “stim”, dogs are not yanked or prodded or kicked or frightened, they are “corrected” … and a trainer using these methods is “balanced” or “eclectic” or – my personal favourite for the misuse of a popular buzzword – “holistic”.

    I am all in favour of certification, with paths established for experienced trainers to fast track, and new trainers to qualify step by step. A baseline qualification, with further specialties might answer many of those who emphasise the differences between basic training for pet dogs, and training working dogs, and should be mandatory for teaching certain training methods. I dislike e-collars, but if they are going to be used, it should be after training by an experienced, qualified instructor who fully understands and communicates their dangers, rather than a few minutes reading the box…

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